Neuronutrient Therapy

Santa Barbara News-Press
r. Glenn E. Miller

This article was originally published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on March 23, 2013

"Nutrition, which feeds the mind as well as the body, greatly influences how we perceive our world."
- Unknown

I recently had the opportunity to meet with a delightfully bright and impressive neuronutrient therapist, Vonda Schaefer, MFT (marriage and family therapist), who has recently moved her practice here to Santa Barbara. To get more insight into this rather fascinating approach to treatment of certain mental health issues, I sat down with her for an in-depth and frank discussion of just what neuronutrient therapy is and exactly what, as a practitioner of that art, she does. Ms. Schaefer has a master's degree in clinical psychology from Antioch University, her bachelor's degree in nutrition from California State University-Long Beach, as well as certification in neuronutrient therapy from Recovery Systems Clinic in San Francisco. She is the author of "Careers in Counseling Youth: 101 Questions Answered," has worked as a clinical supervisor for Family Service Agency, and has taught college-level classes.

Dr. Miller: What exactly is neuronutrient therapy?

Ms. Schaefer: Neuro means "brain" in Latin and nutrient refers to feeding the brain what it needs in order to be healthy and balanced. Neuronutrient therapy is, in most cases, synonymous with amino acid therapy. Amino acids are precursors, the building- block foundation, to neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are very important chemical messengers which send, among other things, emotional and behavioral signals in the brain to elicit a response. These responses include relaxation, reward, pleasurable feelings and excitatory responses. When one or more of our neurotransmitters are low, we begin to see negative symptoms in behavior and thought. These can include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, sleep issues, hyperactivity, ADD, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and many more. In my practice, I listen for behavioral clues that fall into a neuronutrient deficient category, as well as perform other assessments with my clients. I then make a nutrition plan according to my client's needs.

Dr. Miller: Tell me more about the neurotransmitters that can be affected via neuronutrient therapy.

Our food supply has changed more in the last 100 years than in the nearly 2,000 years before it... The fact that our diet is the source of the nutrients needed for a healthy brain is one of the reasons why anxiety disorders and depression are on such a rise in the U.S. Symptoms of depression can result from low serotonin, low catecholamines or other causes.

Ms. Schaefer: There are four key neurotransmitters: serotonin, endorphins, catecholamines and GABA. These are all made from amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, usually taken in through our food. Our food supply has changed more in the last 100 years than in the nearly 2,000 years before it.  In this time period, processed foods hit the market, sodas became the most popular drink, our sugar consumption rose to 3 pounds per week per person, fast foods are a regular part of our diet, and genetically modified ingredients are incorporated into many staple food products. If we compared our diet to our great-grandparents' when they were children, the differences would be astounding. The fact that our diet is the source of the nutrients needed for a healthy brain is one of the reasons why anxiety disorders and depression are on such a rise in the U.S. Symptoms of depression can result from low serotonin, low catecholamines or other causes. If a patient's symptoms are consistent with low serotonin levels, there are two amino acids that we might use, L-tryptophan and 5-HTP. Both of these amino acids are neuronutrients that convert to serotonin when taken properly. They are also restorative, meaning that they can restore levels of serotonin without the need to continue taking them forever.

Dr. Miller: Are you implying that a neuronutrient deficiency may actually cause us to eat the wrong foods?

Ms. Schaefer: Yes indeed. One example, and a very common one, is that when serotonin levels are low, we crave sugar, white flour and/or alcohol. All of these foods give a short, quick, temporary boost of serotonin, but then insulin is secreted and quickly rushes out to grab the sugars released into the blood from these foods, leaving only one substance - tryptophan. The tryptophan is then converted to serotonin. We feel better briefly, but because the serotonin boost does not last, we continue to crave these substances, causing weight gain, guilt from going off the diet, etc. You know the cycle.

Dr. Miller: So then can neuronutrient therapy help with weight loss?

Diets, which became popular in the last 50 years, are a huge contributing factor to low neurotransmitters. Skipping meals and lowering our caloric intake to starvation levels causes many problems.

Ms. Schaefer: Yes. One of the reasons diets fail is because we do not address the underlying reasons for eating the wrong foods. A healthy brain does not want to eat a whole batch of brownie batter and is not tempted by processed, sugary foods. Diets, which became popular in the last 50 years, are a huge contributing factor to low neurotransmitters. Skipping meals and lowering our caloric intake to starvation levels causes many problems. Not only does it not supply the necessary amino acids to make neurotransmitters, but it also causes deficiencies in minerals and other necessary building blocks which contribute to low neurotransmitters. For example, vitamin B6 and zinc are necessary co-factors for the conversion of amino acids in our food to the neurotransmitters they were designed to become. When these co-factors are absent, a deficiency results.

Dr. Miller: How does any of this relate to the issues of substance abuse?

Ms. Schaefer: Amino acid therapy helps tremendously with curbing substance use. In Joan Mathews Larson's book "Seven Weeks to Sobriety," she details how this works and why. Essentially, cravings for alcohol, marijuana and street drugs can occur when there is a low supply of one or more neurotransmitters. The cravings are often due to a desire for symptom relief and the symptoms being experienced are due to a lack of messages being sent in the brain. By treating the deficiency, cravings can subside. This makes it much easier for the person not to use. You have certainly heard patients say that they felt "normal" the first time they tried alcohol, marijuana, ADD medications or other often over-used substances. Many treatment professionals have heard patients say that their depression lifts when they drink alcohol or that they feel they are able to function better under the influence. All of these things can be true for someone with low neurotransmitters. However, continued self-medication leads to increased depression, addiction and all that goes with it. There are substance abuse clinics utilizing this knowledge, and their rates for maintaining sobriety after treatment are around 75 percent, compared with rates of around 25 percent for most clinics who do not incorporate a physiological approach.

Dr. Miller: How safe is this type of amino acid supplementation?

Ms. Schaefer: Although there are no specific side effects, there can be adverse reactions to taking an amino acid your body does not need, or which is taken in the wrong dose. These can include tiredness, wooziness or headaches. An adverse reaction can occur very quickly and can be dissipated quickly as well. As nothing is completely safe for everyone, amino acid therapy is best done under the direction of a qualified professional. There are certain situations which are not appropriate for utilizing certain amino acids, which I carefully assess and discuss with my clients. As with any over-the-counter supplement, anyone with a medical condition or who is taking prescription medication should check with their doctor first.

Dr. Miller: Are there any studies that support what your statements relative to neuronutrient therapy?

These studies also confirm the effectiveness of other nutrients, some of which I mentioned, in lowering symptoms of depression, anxiety and ADHD. A study in Nutrition Journal in 2008 shows nutritional and amino acid support utilized effectively in controlling symptoms of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD and eating disorders

Ms. Schaefer: Yes. Hundreds of studies from many institutions, including Harvard and MIT, confirm the effectiveness of using an isolated amino acid precursor to increase a neurotransmitter level. These studies also confirm the effectiveness of other nutrients, some of which I mentioned, in lowering symptoms of depression, anxiety and ADHD. A study in Nutrition Journal in 2008 shows nutritional and amino acid support utilized effectively in controlling symptoms of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD and eating disorders.

Dr. Miller: Is neuronutrient therapy really as easy and straightforward as you have described?

Ms. Schaefer: No great solution stands alone. As I said, amino acids need co-factors such as vitamins and minerals. Most of my clients must make some dietary changes to go along with their supplementation in order for it to be effective long term. Also, because I am a psychotherapist, we are often discussing emotional factors that contribute to symptoms and substance use as well.

Dr. Miller: How can the Healthy Mind-Healthy Future readers obtain more information about neuronutrient therapy?

Ms. Schaefer: I can be reached at vondaschaefer.mft@gmail.com or by phone at 805-350-2895. I have an office in Santa Barbara and one in Solvang. For readers interested in personal research, Julia Ross has written two wonderful books entitled "The Mood Cure" and "The Diet Cure." In addition, Dr. Kenneth Blum, an award-winning researcher who invented the term "neuronutrient therapy," has written books and published many studies relating to the effectiveness of neuronutrient therapy. Joan Matthews Larson's books, "Seven Weeks to Sobriety" and "Depression Free Naturally," are wonderful resources as well.

Glenn E. Miller, M.D. is a board certified psychiatrist who has been in private practice in Santa Barbara for more than 20 years. Dr. Miller is co-author of "Ancient Herbs, Modern Medicine: Improving Your Health by Combining Chinese Herbal Medicine and Western Medicine." Opinions in the column are Dr. Miller's and not necessarily those of the News-Press. Send questions or topics you would like covered to glenn@healthymindhealthyfuture.com.